To the extent possible under law, the author has waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights to Digital Painting, a complete survey (text only).
Covers the major aspects of digital painting, written for artists, art students, art historians, galleries, curators, collectors and art lovers. For a brief overview, follow the link to: DIGITAL PAINTING, a brief overview
Updated since 2013. Last update January 13, 2019
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Differences in procedure
Protecting originals and limited editions
Digital painting and photography
Size, resolution, enlargement
Vector and raster painting enlargement
Quality-quantity convention, limited editions
Collecting digital art, assessment
Market for digital art
A 'digital' painting is created on the computer using a graphics program, a virtual paintbox with brushes, colors and other supplies. The definition applies to a painting on its primary digital carrier (as a computer file) as well as when it is transferred in a non-manual process to a secondary physical carrier (printed on paper, acryllic glass, aluminum, canvas, etc).
Apart from the traditional painting utensils, the virtual painting
box contains instruments that don't exist outside the computer. The
use of these instruments distinguish a digital from a non-digital
painting. Typical visual characteristics can be traced back to the
power of the computer to attach geometrical formulas to lines, shapes
and forms. While it is impossible for a human hand to create exactly
identical forms, or construct a perfect circle or a perfectly straight
line, for a computer it is difficult to do anything but this.
Formula-based shapes are easy to recognize by a degree of perfection
that is literally inhuman. They bear some resemblance to traditional
paper cut-outs or stencil art. Specific traits of digital painting
- Sharp, bold appearance
- Regular distortion
- Exact repetition
- Perfect circles, squares and other shapes
- Embossing and other 3D illusion
- Perfectly smooth gradients
- 100% monochrome color planes
The flatness of the physical representation is also typical for the digital medium. Though the computer can be used to create a convincing illusion of texture on the virtual canvas, as yet this cannot be translated to real texture on paper, dibond, perspex etc.
In most programs it is possible to undo all or at least a generous number of brush strokes and other actions without a trace. Compared to traditional painting, where one wrong move can spoil the painting, the ‘undo’ feature allows a more spontaneous and intuitive method. Instant 'push button' transformations also make for quickness and spontaneity. On the other hand, one mainstream form of digital painting (vector painting) involves the manipulation of digital shapes with a specific tool, and this is a slower and more deliberate method than stroke by stroke painting.
When the digital artist is done, the painting is on the hard disk of a computer. In order to sell it, it will have to be transferred to a physical carrier like dibond, fine art paper, acryllic glass, etc. What happens to the primary digital carrier depends on how the artist wants to offer the painting. If the print is sold as an original, the digital carrier is either deleted or transferred to the buyer. If it is offered as a series, the artist deletes the digital carrier when the prefixed number of copies is sold. For an open ended series, the digital carrier remains on the hard disk of the computer. The buyer should always be informed about the status of the digital carrier.
Obviously, forms and shapes that are typical for digital painting cannot be transmitted to a physical carrier in a manual process. All the digital characteristics would be lost. The implication is often under-emphasized: a digital artwork, in its physical representation, is and can only be a print. If an artwork that was created on a computer is printed on a physical carrier and, as is often the case, painted over with real paint, the result is a 'traditional painting'. The original work on the computer still meets the definition of a digital painting.
It is a common misunderstanding that a print cannot be a numerously
unique work of art. It certainly can and often is. There are a number
of ways, traditional as well as new, to effectively protect uniqueness
and limited editions.
The artist should carefully protect full-size, high resolution files of the artwork by choosing safe methods of transfer and sharing full scale files only with printing companies that delete them after use. Depending on the difference in scale between the original and the online image, raster and combined vector-raster paintings can be effectively protected by using low resolution and small size files for online display. Stronger measures such as DAM are needed to protect duplication and enlargement of online vector paintings.
Protection of the print (PAM)
PAM (physical asset management) consists of a manual signature and/or a unique mark both on the printed artwork and the certificate. The mark establishes authorship and protects prints from duplication. With a GS1 or EAN code an artwork (or any other product) is identified worldwide with a unique number. The number is translated into a small image, like a barcode or a datamatrix which can be attached to the certificate and the printed artwork. GS1 codes are issued in over 100 participating countries. Marks are placed on the back of the print.
Protection of the digital image
DAM (digital asset management) is used to establish authorship of the digital image and to prevent it from being copied and used to produce prints and certificates without marks or with forged marks. A unique digimark is registered and invisibly embedded in the code of the image. Other than a digital watermark that is visibly placed over the image and which can easily be removed, the embedded digimark survives a variety of manipulations and transformations, even duplication by screenshot. Digimarks are optionally supplemented with a search service that permanently crawls the Internet tracing and reporting copies.
Based on differences in method and appearance, four mainstream
directions can be recognized.
1. Computer generated painting: Characteristics of digital painting are present.
2. Raster painting: Characteristics of digital painting are absent.
3. Vector painting: Characteristics of digital painting are present.
4. Vector-raster painting: Characteristics of digital painting are present.
Computer generated painting
Both in procedure and in appearance a raster, grid, or bitmap painting resembles most closely a traditional painting with real brushes and paint. The image is created on the screen in a spontaneous, stroke by stroke manner by hand or with a stylo. Colors and lines are registered pixel by pixel on the digital canvas. Every characteristic of the individual painter's hand is preserved.
A main disadvantage is the fixed resolution. Often, the length and width of the creation is as small as a (mobile) computer screen and the resolution as low as 72 dots per inch. If the image is to be transferred to a physical carrier of customary size, it will have to be enlarged considerably. Enlargement generally entails manual correction, a tedious and time consuming process which is a serious obstacle for printing.
In recent versions of some raster painting programs, 'scripting' allows the painter to enlarge the canvas size in an automated process of replay without loss of resolution (see 'size, resolution, enlargement').
A manual vector painting is made by choosing basic shapes like circles, triangles and squares, or by painting them freehand, and then transforming them with special tools. The mathematical basis of vectors are 'Bezier curves', named after a French engineer who developed them in 1962 for the automobile design at Renault. The painting process is somewhat like sculpture and less suitable for intuitive, spontaneous work than raster. All lines and shapes are captured into geometrical formulas. They obey to one-click operations such as change color, make transparent, emboss, flip, group, cast shadow, etc. The formula based method leaves no room for characteristics of the individual painter's hand. The personality of the maker can be felt in aspects like the choice of subject, composition, palette and gradients, atmosphere, concept of a painting etc., but not in the brush stroke.
Vector paintings have the advantage that files are small and can easily be enlarged to any size (within a vector program) without loss of sharpness. The resolution is flexible and can always be set to the maximum that the printer can handle. Computer generated painting (above) is a form of non-manual vector painting.
Hybrid vector-raster painting combines the personal brush style of raster with the formula-based lines and forms of vector. It is done in one program or by combining different programs for vector and raster painting. The raster elements lose sharpness when they are enlarged. Some hybrid painting programs (e.g. ArtRage) use Bezier curves in the background to smooth all lines and curves without intervention of the artist. The painting procedure is spontaneous, stroke by stroke, and the output is a fixed resolution raster file. The smooth, non-raster, non-vector appearance of the painting reflects the hybrid basis. Smoothing mitigates the loss of resolution when the image is enlarged. In addition, in recent versions of hybrid painting programs, ‘scripting’ allows the painter to automatically enlarge the size of the painting considerably without loss of resolution.
Over the centuries, artists have used a variety of tools to put the outside world on their canvas as raw material to be digested and molded into their own subjective interpretation. It is nothing new that painters use a camera. Still, the digital process does make a difference. To place existing images on a digital canvas and translate them into paintings now requires nothing but a push on a button. It brings subtle changes in painterly development (see below) and shifting boundaries between disciplines. A photographer now uses the same software for editing and transforming a photo as the artist for creating a painting. At the same time, digital painters start to use the flat physical carriers that were developed for photography. The shared toolbox establishes a transition zone between photography and painting. Essentially this is a transition zone between recording and creating images. Classification is not always easy if a photo is used as input in a genuinely creative process (as opposed to push-button transformations). If photographic aspects dominate it is usually classified as 'digital photo art' or 'new photography'. If painterly aspects dominate as a ‘digital painting’.
When the artist increases the height and width of an existing image, its resolution - or information density - decreases and it will become vague. Resolution is usually expressed in 'dpi' (dots per inch). While the image on the screen already looks sharp at the standard resolution of 72 dpi on the web, a physical carrier needs 300 dpi or more. In addition, the physical carrier is often much larger in height and width as well.
For a vector painting, where colors and lines are controlled by
formulas, enlargement requires nothing but a push on a button. There
is never a loss of resolution. For raster painting, information will
have to be added to fill in the gaps. Usually this is done with the
help of enlargement software or by the 're-size' option in the
painting program (step 1), followed by a manual correction (step 2).
In recent versions of raster painting software, 'scripting' offers
automated enlargement without loss of resolution.
Although much progress has been made in non-scripting enlargement, it remains difficult to fill in the empty space between handmade lines and shapes. Lines become unsteady and crumbly and unintended 'noise' appears along the edges of color patches. The image above shows two different types of online enlargement of the same fragment of Pierre Bonnard's Getting out of the bath. Note that each method entails its own noise and deformation.
In order to eliminate deformation, automatic enlargement is usually followed by manual correction. This is not something to go about lightly. Depending on the speed of the computer and the chosen size and resolution of the image, correction can be slow or even come to a halt. The screen, of course, is not enlarged: the artist can no longer see the whole image and will have to zoom in and out frequently, switching between corrections and reviewing the results.
Recently, several programs for raster and hybrid painting introduced ‘scripting’: all strokes and actions are recorded and can later be repeated without loss of resolution on a larger digital canvas on the desktop. Scripting is a considerable improvement: by making the canvas flexible it clears the backlog for raster painters when it comes to printing. Compared to vector painting, the remaining disadvantage is that substantial enlargement of a pixel-by-pixel canvas generates much larger files. Depending on the hardware these can be difficult to handle.
What can be done to see and to represent colors reliably? Let's look
at different purposes in the digital environment:
To see colors
Every computer screen deviates to some degree from the 'true' color values that is set as a standard by the international color convention (ICC). These deviations are corrected by a calibration of the screen. For anyone working with colors it is absolutely necessary to regularly calibrate. This is done with the help of a small device that is attached to the screen. It calls up a number of colors, compares them with the standard and creates a monitor profile. This unique piece of software corrects the screen of the individual computer and is automatically installed as the default. It runs silently in the background. Its only task is to correct the monitor. Although, confusingly, this monitor profile is listed between a whole range of optional profiles for printing, apart from a regular update it should be left alone. It is never embedded in an artwork.
To create colors
In professional desktop painting software, the basic profile types have their corresponding palettes and matching color spectrum in the workspace. It is advisable to work in the palette and the spectrum that matches the destination - CYMK for printing, RGB for online display and grayscale for black and white. Changing between RGB and CYMK profiles is not (yet) possible on mobile devices. Paintings have the RGB profile embedded.
To display and print colors
The artist should embed a color profile in the finished artwork that matches one of two destinations: a webpage or a printing company. This is important because the color palette for printing is much smaller than the average palette of a computer screen. If the artist sends a painting to the printer that has the RGB profile for online display embedded, many colors that are not available will in some automatic process be translated to a nearest neighbour. The result can be a costly disappointment.
This is especially relevant for painters working on mobile apps because they have the RGB profile standard embedded in their artworks. If the work is to be printed, colors should be converted to a CYMK printing profile. This is done in a desktop painting program. As a rule the printing company supplies his own profile that is tailored to his machinery, ink, choice of paper etc. He can also prescribe one of the many CYMK profiles that are available in most computers. Some printing companies accept files with the RGB profile and convert them to their own CYMK profile.
Colors in browsers
Most of the colors we see on the screen are interpretations by browsers and apps. Only a hard core of 216 colors is standardized between browsers. The artist who aims to avoid online color deviation entirely, has the option to use the 'web safe color palette'. This seriously limits the choice of colors. Even then, small differences occur.
In conclusion, three things are needed to see and to represent colors
(1) If you are using a desktop computer your screen should be calibrated.
(2) If possible, the artist should work in the color palette that matches the destination. If this is not possible, RGB is the larger palette and the safer choice.
(3) When finished, a color profile should be embedded in the artwork that matches the destination (either RGB for a digital destination or CYMK for a printing company).
Over the centuries art lovers have felt the hand and mood of the painter in brush strokes and paint. Many find that a painting without texture is fine in a book, but doesn't feel right on the wall. Though a stylus can be as sensitive to the pressure of the hand as a traditional brush, and the pressure can be made visible on the screen, a digital painting is entirely flat. Some artists project their work on a physical carrier and paint it over, using the computer as a preparatory device and sacrificing the digital characteristics. Others apply brushstroke gel to the physical carrier. Yet others have chosen to accept flatness as a necessary property of digital painting at this stage. Some emphasize it in appreciation of the minimalistic appearance.
In traditional painting, the numbering of a limited edition by
convention follows a quality/quantity notation 'i/n' in front of the
artwork. Where 'i' indicates a rough ranking of the individual print
according to technical and aesthetic quality and 'n' is the size of
the edition. Since all prints of a digital artwork are identical, 'i'
has no other meaning than to let a buyer know how many prints are
still available. The meaning of 'n' is still the same: the size of a
limited edition has economic significance for collectors. As in
traditional painting, the size of 'n' is set by the artist prior to
the first sale. The artist keeps register of the number of copies that
are sold. Open series are referred to as '∞ ', and numerically unique
prints as '1/1'. In the automated printing process, the unnumbered
run-up prints that are traditionally labeled as 'E.A.' (epreuve
artiste) or 'A.P.' (artist's proof), can still occur.
A great variety of tools give the digital artist exciting new means
to express thoughts and feelings. On the negative side, the more the
computer facilitates the work of the artist by offering easy imports,
taking over painting processes and offering, sometimes even imposing,
a wide array of styles, the more difficult it becomes for painters to
develop their own idiom, to take distance from images that are already
there, and to make the voice of the computer secondary to their own.
Choice of software
Painting software has a decisive influence on the style of any artist. A change of program inevitably makes for a change in style. Once a considered choice has been made, the artist should only change it with good reason.
It has advantages to use software from established companies with large artist communities. Such companies are more likely not only to adapt their software to new hardware but also offer backward integration. Without this, paintings eventually get caught in a version of an app that is tied to older hardware, with no possibility to get them out or print them larger than a stamp. Many raster painters experienced the loss of years of work that became trapped in Brushes, a small open source program and one of the most popular painting apps ever. Artists develop their own style in an ongoing process of interaction with the software, so when the software has to be discontinued this investment too will be lost.
Collecting starts with looking. Unfortunately, browsing the huge
amount of online portfolios is not as easy and pleasant as it could
be. There is a great deal of room for improvement in search
algorithms. At some of the worlds largest online galleries, collectors
are flooded by very similar computer generated images that are made by
only a few painters. If they tire from so much homogeneity and decide
to resume another time, they will have to wade through these images
again. Some galleries lower the resolution as well as the size of
images to speed up browsing, thereby depriving collectors of the far
more time-efficient method of judging paintings at first sight. And
not withstanding the major visual differences of the mainstream
painting directions, many search engines do not allow to filter on
‘raster’, ‘vector’, ‘hybrid’ or ‘computer generated’ digital art.
Primary aspects like resolution or the number of prints of a limited
edition that is still available are often not mentioned in the
The used software is also rarely mentioned. In order to appreciate originality and technical skill, collectors need to know which program the artist has used to create the painting. Without this, it is impossible to distinguish what comes out of the app from what comes out of the artist. (Visit Ben Guerette's A Blog appArt for a wild variety of styles and technical skills that are a property of the software.)
Although many online galleries offer reliable visual information about the resolution with a online 1:1 detail of an artwork, the look and feel of the painting on its carrier cannot be assessed online. Colors to some extent vary with the carrier and the type of screen, so they too remain difficult, even if the collector’s screen is calibrated.
The best way to judge a digital painting is to ask the artist for a
miniature sample. It should be printed on the chosen carrier and
executed with the same resolution. This is an easy and inexpensive way
to obtain all the relevant information to make a decision.
As is true for traditional painting, it is always important to buy at a trusted party. While most digital painters are still alive, paintings can be bought directly from the artist or at online galleries where they show their portfolios.
The market for digital art is gradually maturing. Collectors start to
realize that digital painting is a new visual language that can't be
expressed with traditional means. Many problems have been solved.
Color representation has become fairly reliable thanks to the use of
color profiles and calibration. Digital and physical asset management
and a responsible handling of digital files have brought the risk of
duplication down to an acceptable level. Slowly but steadily, digital
paintings are finding their way to museums, auctions and galleries
where they meet a new generation of collectors.
Yet, many highly professional, even pioneering digital painters still have no idea how to get their work out of the computer and up on a wall. Most rely on an online gallery to offer prints of their work. Large online galleries offer an abundance of originals and quality prints worldwide with good sales conditions. Although this relieves artists of a host of technical concerns, there are also some serious disadvantages. If the printing is left to the gallery and the print sent directly to the collector, the artist can no longer evaluate and if necessary adjust the (color) representation. Physical asset management including a manual signature is likewise not possible. And finally, the computer of the artist is also no longer the only location where a high resolution file of the painting is stored. Analogue to the protection of author's rights for books, it is to be expected that online galleries will presently take over the digital and physical asset management from the artist.
A certificate is important in physical asset management (PAM). It bears a mark of identity such as the signature of the artist or a personalized sign, watermark, bar code, fingerprint or hologram which matches an identity mark on (or in) the artwork. The document contains a copyright declaration, distinguishes between an original and an open or closed edition, states the size of a limited edition, binds the artist to deletion of the digital carrier after the sale, and conditions the display of the artwork after it is sold. A Certificate of Unicity for a numerically unique print ('original' or '1/1') a Certificate for a Limited Edition and a Certificate for an Open Edition is regularly updated and freely available on this site.
Brushstroke gel: Water-soluble acrylic polymer
containing a UV inhibitor which helps protect the art from yellowing
and fading. Also used to recreate brushstrokes on digital paintings
printed on canvas. http://www.artandframingsolutions.com/BrushstrokeGel.htm
Don Archers blog, Digital art, artists and commentaries
Spyder calibration sensor
Carriers for digital painting:
Xpozer, Prints on polyester coated paper, floating, unframed mount (sRGB profile accepted)
Whitewall, Prints on Hahnemuele paper, canvas, brushed aluminum, dibond, perspex, (printer's color profile supplied, sRGB profile excepted)
Drukwerkdeal, Postcards, large format prints on dibond and brushed aluminum, and postcards (printer's color profile supplied)
Certificates, For original, limited and open edition
Automatic conversion, photos to paintings, drawings and cartoons
Waterlogue, Automatic conversion of photos to paintings, drawings and cartoons
Many programs listed
Oneone perfect resize, (enlargement correction)
ZoomPro5, Ben Vista
Enlargement, manual (projection of physical and digital image on walls, canvas etc.):
beamers (choose a led beamer to work in daylight)
Fractal art, video1
Fractal art, video2
Agora West 25th Street, New York, NY)
K16 Keizersgracht 16, 1015 CP Amsterdam, NL)
Hand painted copies:
Dafen Village, China: By artist, style, size
Mark, barcode, digimark, hologram (print and digital image
Barcode registration GS1
Digimark (invisibly embedded watermark with tracing option, a Photoshop plug-in)
MOCA Museum of Computer Art (MOCA) of New York State University offers emerging directions in digital art an online platform since 1993. Annual competition in digital art, catalogues.
Programs for painting on iPad and iPhone:
Adobe Eazel (raster) (no undo option)
Adobe ideas (vector) (in combination with Adobe Illustrator)
ArtRage (has scripting)
Procreate (maximum canvas depends on device. iPad Pro 16,384 x 4,096)
Inkpad (vector, open source)
Programs for painting on PC and Mac:
Adobe Photoshop CS6
Programs for fractal painting:
Programs for vector painting:
Overwiew of vector programs and file formats
Adobe ideas (iPad) (in combination with Adobe Illustrator)
Inkpad (iPad/iPhone) (open source)
CorelDraw for Windows
For artwork on paper
A Blog appArt, An overview of styles and features of apps and painting software by Ben Guerette
vector art, video
Blood sweat vector
Vectorization, online (raster to vector conversion):
2013-2018 DigitalPainting.be Amsterdam - Gent
2018/12/18 Update of 'Protecting originals
and limited editions'
2018/11/28 The text is corrected and modified
2018/03/13 The text is dedicated into the Public Domain
2017/09/13 New certificates published (version 5.0)
2017/08/30 Update of 'characteristics'; 'uniqueness and limited editions'; 'links'
2017/08/22 Update of 'detailed survey'
2017/08/14 Update of 'brief overview'
2015/08/08 New certificates: (v.4 for originals, v.1 for editions)
2015/08/06 Major update 'Market for digital art'
2015/08/03 'About color'
2015/05/21 'File formats'
2015/05/01 'Pioneering digital artists'
2015/04/25 'Visual characteristics'